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Startup Piston 'ready for fight' with VMware

Having just released its new cloud operating system, Piston Cloud Computing finds itself in a contentious position -- and company co-founder Josh McKenty says that is exactly where the company wants to be.

"We're building a product that's great for private clouds, and that puts us head-to-head with VMware," McKenty says. "And I'm ready for that fight."

ENTRANCE: Former NASA OpenStack researchers enter private cloud market

McKenty didn't mince words when describing his young company's new product, which it is touting as the industry's first private cloud operating system based on the OpenStack framework.

"The thing that I want to make sure is crystal clear is that Piston Enterprise OS is an alternative to VMware," says McKenty, a former technical architect with the NASA Nebula team that originally designed the OpenStack framework. "This is an alternative to the proprietary walled garden approach to cloud that VMware has adopted."

For a company that has only been in business since July, and a new product based on technology that has only been around since the summer of 2010, making these bold claims means the company will have to live up to the hype. Given a little time, some industry observers believe Piston Cloud Computing may have a chance.

Jay Lyman, senior analyst covering enterprise software for 451 Research, says Piston Enterprise OS, or PentOS, comes at a time when many enterprise customers have expressed a desire for new options for private cloud management.

"I think that from what we hear from customers and users of OpenStack and those that are interested in it, it's serving as an alternative in the market, mainly to Amazon and VMware," Lyman says. "And I think VMware is obviously widely deployed in the enterprise, and Amazon is the big cloud computing leader in the enterprise now. But there is a desire to have an alternative provider of cloud services."

In McKenty's opinion, VMware and other private cloud service providers are the only companies with which Piston Cloud Computing intends to compete, primarily because other efforts in the OpenStack community have been directed at the public cloud.

"We don't see ourselves as competitive to other OpenStack distributions," McKenty says. "Folks working in the OpenStack community are really addressing specific use cases. You've got to pick a hypervisor and a network model to make all these decisions, and you end up with a product that's perfectly fit for a specific use. Almost everybody working on those distributions is building products that are great for public clouds."

However, Lyman does not expect the OpenStack market to remain so friendly. As vendors see the rise in popularity among OpenStack tools for managing the cloud, it won't be long until these companies naturally end up going after the same customers.

"There are a number of vendors who also want to be the alternative to Amazon or VMware," Lyman says. "Piston isn't the only one, certainly. So competing with VMware is a challenging prospect because they have a pretty good stronghold in the enterprise virtualization market and are now moving more into cloud. And then [there is] the competition within OpenStack, which I think is a healthy part of the community that is part of that appeal."

In the long run, Lyman believes the introduction of new vendors to challenge Piston Cloud will only be good for the private cloud market. Citing Rackspace's continued work with OpenStack, which McKenty also acknowledged was more devoted to creating a framework instead of actual products, Lyman says some room in the market has opened up for those looking to provide products on that framework. This includes both Piston Cloud Computing and even Citrix, whose acquisition of Cloud.com this past summer makes it another strong competitor against VMware.

"[Rackspace has] talked since the beginning about an ecosystem and that they are primarily interested in doing what they've always done and not providing the software," Lyman says. "So I think that has provided the opportunity for like a Citrix or a Piston Cloud Computing to offer sort of a hardened enterprise version, and I think that's exactly what PentOS is."

Not all private cloud vendors will continue to battle, though. According to Lyman, the market will likely see several partnerships between fellow OpenStack companies that will benefit from collaborating when targeting certain customers. And although it does seem like a long shot, Lyman did not rule out even VMware one day warming up to open source software for the private cloud.

Of course, those kinds of developments are years away, Lyman says, and Piston Cloud remains squared up with VMware for the time being. According to McKenty, the company is in for a long battle, one that will be similar to those that the enterprise IT industry has seen before.

"It's a bit like Linux versus Microsoft," McKenty says. "It'll take twice as long as we think it's going to take, but basically what we need to do to win is stay alive. People want this. Nobody wants to be stuck buying from a single vendor for the next 20 years. We lived through that before."

Colin Neagle covers Microsoft security and network management for Network World. Keep up with his blog: Rated Critical, follow him on Twitter: @ntwrkwrldneagle. Colin's email is cneagle@nww.com.


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